User Story Mapping Guide

A practical guide to user story mapping in 2024 written by CardBoard, the software tool featured in Jeff Patton’s best-selling book.

user story mapping book

What is User Story Mapping?

User story mapping is simple. It’s a visual technique to represent the journey a user takes with a product. The journey is broken down into stories, which describe features from the user’s perspective.

User story mapping in product development

User story mapping originated from the Agile software development community. It was popularized by Jeff Patton, who wrote this book.

Patton’s friend, the late David Hussman, was a well-respected Agile coach who also contributed to the concept. Both Patton and Hussman advocated for user story maps as a better way to work with Agile user stories (What is Agile)

What are the benefits of user story mapping?

Product teams use story maps for the following reasons:

Overview what needs to be done: User story maps show the context of what needs to be done for a user to accomplish their objective, unlike one-dimensional backlogs that miss the forest for the trees.

Monitor progress: Grouping tasks into outcome-focused slices allows the team to see exactly how much work is left to achieve the desired outcome. This is useful for showing stakeholders the complexity, scope, and impact of their decisions in real time.

Prioritize what users find valuable: Visually organizing user stories based on the user’s experiences keeps product development aligned with what users actually want and need. It also prevents stories from being discarded that might not seem valuable individually but are essential within the larger user journey context.

Collaborate with the team: Creating a shared visual narrative of the project helps everyone understand how their individual tasks fit into the broader user experience. Shared understanding produces cohesive decision-making and efficient problem-solving within the team.

Forecast how long it will take: Visually representing the product narrative shows tasks and their dependencies. This helps spot opportunities and raise red flags in project plans, which makes teams better at forecasting reliable timelines.

The Essentials of User Story Mapping

The structure of a user story map puts you in your user’s shoes. Here’s an example:

story mapping example

Create a user story map in CardBoard. Start using this template now ->

At a high level, this story map is constructed of 3 things:

Body

The body of a map is made of tasks, which are the actions a user takes while using the product. It also includes relevant details and alternative ways to perform a task.

Backbone

The top of the map is made of activities that group the tasks below them. These summaries make it easier to discuss a map without going over every part in detail.

Slices

The horizontal lines represent swimlanes through the map. They prioritize tasks by grouping them according to specific outcomes.

How to Create a User story Map

Running a story mapping session may seem simple at first glance, but it’s a deceptively nuanced technique. For best results, follow a structured approach. We’ve outlined these 7 steps to guide you.

Step 1:

Define your user and their goal

Start by identifying your user and the primary goal they want to achieve when using your product. This sets the context for the entire mapping process so you remain user-centric, whether your users are external customers or internal teams.

Step 2:

Map a "happy path" of tasks

Quickly outline a set of tasks that easily come to mind as you think about how the user will interact with your product. This often represents the most straightforward route, or “happy path” your user will take to accomplish their goal.

Step 3:

Group tasks under activities

Using the tasks you created, group related tasks into activities. These activities represent stages in the user’s path and should contain the tasks necessary to complete that stage.

Give descriptions to the groups of related tasks to make it easy to discuss. Some activities may only have one task while others can contain several.

Step 4:

Organize activities chronologically

Now arrange activities chronologically from left to right in the order they are likely to occur. Think of creating a timeline that mirrors the sequence your user will encounter when interacting with the product.

This creates the narrative flow for your map. It should be easy for others to understand the logical progression from beginning to end as if they were reading it out loud.

Step 5:

Prioritize tasks top to bottom

You should also order the tasks under each activity based on their impact on the user’s journey. Consider which tasks are essential for achieving the activity’s goal and which ones are supportive but not mission-critical.

Step 6:

Review and refine the story

Now it’s time to take a step back and review the map. Look for gaps in the story you may have missed. It’s also useful to think about dependencies and alternative ways of doing a task. Good questions to ask include:

• What did I miss?
• What needs to happen if something goes wrong?
• What are other choices a user could make along the journey?

Step 7:

Divide story map into releases

Once you have all of this in place, you can begin to slice your map into releases. Start by adding two horizontal lines: one directly below your activities and another one somewhere further down.

Now arrange your map so only the tasks that are relevant to the first outcome you want to achieve stay in the first swimlane. Check by reading the cards in this swimlane from left to right to see if it’s a complete story.

Create a user story map in CardBoard

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Story Mapping Tips & Tricks

When creating user story maps, keep these tips and tricks in mind:

Story maps are living documents

You use them to get an understanding of your product in the beginning. But you should also revisit them later as you build things on your strategy changes.

Create maps collaboratively

Create maps together, not in isolation.

Involve diverse roles

When creating your story map, diverse perspectives will help you build better products (see below).

Time box

Limit the amount of time you have to create the story map. This keeps things moving and helps you build maps quickly without getting hung up on details.

Talk and doc

Story maps are to encourage conversation, not for comprehensive project tracking.

Who should participate in user story mapping?

In user story mapping sessions, it's helpful to include a diverse group of participants. Considering including these people:

Product Manager

Product managers steer the team's focus towards market and user needs, ensuring that the map reflects both user value and business objectives. Their active involvement is key to prioritizing features that align with the strategic direction of the product.

UX/UI Designer

UX/UI designers focus on creating an exceptional user experience. Their insights into user interface design helps visualize how users will interact with the product. This leads to better usability, accessibility, and overall user satisfaction.

DevOps Specialist

DevOps specialists integrate development and operational perspectives to ensure the map accounts for deployments, scalability, and long-term maintenance considerations. Their expertise in continuous integration and delivery pipelines is crucial for planning releases.

Customer Support

Customer support teams share valuable insights and user feedback to identify opportunities for improvement. Their real-world context helps prioritize features that are aligned with user needs.

Technical Engineer

Developers evaluate the feasibility of each user story and discuss implementation strategies, grounding the map in technical reality. Their expertise is crucial in ensuring that the planned features are both practical and achievable within the project's constraints.

Business Analyst

Business analysts offers insights into market trends, competitive analysis, and user feedback so the map aligns with the overall business strategy. They prioritize user stories based on organizational goals and market impact.

QA Tester

QA testers identify testing scenarios and quality criteria for each user story so the map considers testing requirements from the outset. Their involvement helps plan for rigorous testing and quality control, ultimately leading to a more reliable and bug-free product.

Sales / Marketing

Sales and marketing teams provide customer insights and market trends that inform user story maps. They ensure the product aligns with market demands, which improves product adoption and customer acquisition.

Learn More About User Story Mapping

Resources from product experts who teach story mapping.

Video

Watch the late David Hussman build a story map

Video

Watch Jeff Patton build a story map

Video

Watch User Story Mapping: Discover the Whole Story

Course

Jeff Patton: Passionate Product Leadership

Course

Angela Wick: User Story Mapping Course

Video

Watch User Story Mapping Tutorial (CardBoard)

coaching for learning

Book

Read User Story Mapping

coaching for learning

Book

Read Coaching for Learning

escaping the build trap

Book

Read Escaping the Build Trap

Book

Read Continuous Discovery Habits

Frequently Asked Questions

Straight answers to your questions about User Story Mapping.

What is user story mapping?

User story mapping is a dynamic technique that arranges a product's features around the user's journey. It provides teams with a visual layout that highlights the sequence of user actions, helping prioritize development tasks, identify gaps, and strategically plan releases. By mapping out the entire user experience, this approach ensures that product development aligns with user needs and business goals, making it an essential tool for user-centric development.

What tools do you need for story mapping?

For effective story mapping, you need:

1. Sticky Notes or Digital Cards: To visually represent user stories and tasks.

2. Large Wall Space or Digital Board: To arrange and rearrange story elements.

3. Markers or Online Tools: For detailing and labeling your map.

These tools facilitate a clear and organized approach to understanding the user journey.

When is user story mapping done?

User story mapping is typically done at the beginning of the product development process or at the start of new project phases. It helps teams align on the product vision, break down the work into manageable components, and prioritize what to build first. Additionally, story mapping can be revisited and updated throughout the development cycle to reflect changes, new insights, and adjustments based on user feedback, ensuring the product continuously meets user needs and business goals.

How long does story mapping take?

The duration of a user story mapping session can vary, typically ranging from a few hours to a full day. Larger or more complex projects may require multiple sessions spread over several days. The process is adaptable and allows teams to extend or shorten the time based on project specifics and desired detail level. Regular updates to the map throughout the project are common to reflect changes and new insights.

What's the difference between user story mapping and product backlog?

User story mapping and the product backlog are both agile development tools but serve distinct purposes:

- User Story Mapping: Creates a visual representation of the user journey, organizing user stories across the timeline or workflow. It offers a comprehensive view of how features interconnect and their roles in enhancing user experience, assisting in feature prioritization based on their sequence and impact.

- Product Backlog: Acts as a prioritized list of tasks for the development team, including user stories, bugs, and enhancements. It's more linear and focuses on detailing tasks in order of priority for efficient execution.

Story mapping gives a strategic overview of the project, helping prioritize development, while the product backlog provides a tactical, ordered list for day-to-day development activities.

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